How Much Does Poverty Drive Crime?
Religion & Liberty Online

How Much Does Poverty Drive Crime?

police-povertyI’m about to make a prediction that is incontrovertible — a claim that cannot be controverted because (a) I am absolutely right in my prediction, and (b) because I will be long dead before my rightness can be proven.

Here’s what I predict: By the year 2114 social scientists will have established with 90 percent confidence that the “root cause” of the majority of the social maladies we experienced in the early twenty-first century (i.e., right now) were attributable to family structure, family dynamics, or family culture.

A trend in that direction appears to already be underway. Consider, for example, research recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that studied more than half a million children born in Sweden between 1989 and 1993. The results of the study showed that children of parents in the lowest income quintile experienced an increased risk of being convicted of violent criminality and substance abuse compared with peers in the highest quintile. No real surprise there. What was unexpected was the conclusion: “There were no associations between childhood family income and subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse once we had adjusted for unobserved familial risk factors.”

As The Economist explains, for “families which had started poor and got richer, the younger children—those born into relative affluence—were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor.”

This finding shouldn’t be all that surprising for anyone who has spent much time around people in poverty. Lack of money is certainly a problem for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, but it’s rarely the cause of people engaging in criminal behavior. All poor people share a common trait — they lack sufficient income and/or wealth — but they don’t all share a propensity for criminality. Why then is crime more prevalent in poverty-stricken areas?

The reason is that people in areas of high poverty tend to lack access to strong institutions that can compensate for broken family structures, dysfunctional family dynamics, or pathological family cultures. Overcoming the effects of a having a messed up family are difficult enough when you have both money and institutional resources, like functioning school systems and locally-engaging churches. But if you have nothing else to rely on but family and that fails, you are likely to fail too.

While I’m generally a believer in self-determination, I believe family is the one factor that is more likely than any other to determine whether an individual flourishes or fails. It’ll likely take another hundred years before social science confirms my conviction. But I’m hoping by then our society — or at least the subset who consider themselves to be conservatives — will finally recognize that the most important institution in need of conservation is the family.

(Via: Marginal Revolution)

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).